MORE INCONVENIENT TRUTHS

November 2017

As I was reading the weekend paper last week, I noticed a short piece summarizing the most impactful life choices that individuals could make to reduce their carbon footprint.  Intrigued by the conclusions, I tracked down the study from the Centre for Sustainability Studies in Sweden from which it was quoting.  The study, co-authored by UBC researcher Seth Wynes and Kimberley Nicholas, undertook a comprehensive review of the carbon impact of lifestyle choices made by individuals in developed countries and compared the results against the environmentally-positive choices that are most commonly advocated by high school science textbooks.  High school textbooks were selected as the counterpoint on the theory that it is the choices of this emerging generation that are still sufficiently malleable to make a difference in the effort to reduce carbon emissions.

The results reflect a truth that is perhaps even more inconvenient that that first exposed by Al Gore.  By far the most significant lifestyle choice that one can make to reduce the growth of atmospheric carbon is to have no children, or at least to have no more than two children per woman.  This decision alone, cascaded through multiple generations with conservative assumptions about the reproductive behaviour of any one child, results in a carbon reduction that is almost 25x greater than living car free, more than 35x greater than eliminating transatlantic air travel and more than 70x greater than shifting to an entirely plant-based diet.  And those are the next four largest carbon-sparing personal choices!

What about shifting to an electric car, recycling and using energy efficient light bulbs?  The shift to an electric car only reduces by half the carbon burden that a car imposes on the environment, and is accordingly only 1/50th as effective as having one less child.  Consistent recycling would make 1/300th the impact of one fewer child.  And the upgrade to energy efficient light bulbs; 1/600th.

Despite this reality, Wynes and Nicholas found that high school text books were far more consistent in advocating electric cars, recycling and energy efficient bulbs as environmentally responsible behaviours, and NEVER referred to smaller families as a relevant strategy at all.  It is no wonder that letters to the editor in newspapers scolding oil companies so often begin with “as a mother of five wonderful children, no one is more committed to putting a halt to our addiction to carbon than I”.  Come to think of it, those letters also often begin, “as one who has regularly traveled to the most remote places on earth, I have seen first hand the devastating changes that our carbon addiction is bringing to the most vulnerable corners of the planet”.  Wynes and Nicholas must roll their eyes.

The inconvenient truth is that the next generation is far more likely to be Tesla driving, dutifully recycling families of four that eat their steak dinners under LED light as they review the photos from their most recent jaunt to Europe than childless, transit-riding stay-cationing vegans.  And it is that reality, not unbridled corporate capitalism, that presents the most daunting challenge to any effort to find effective solutions to mitigate anthropogenic climate change.

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